Adapting Edgar Allen Poe's The Conqueror Worm is no easy task. In the first place, it isn't a story. It's a poem, about the folly of man and how we all end up in the grave as worm-food. There is no actual "conqueror worm" per se; it's just a metaphor for the worthlessness of our lives and ambitions. Not very cheery, as you could surmise.
But trust Richard Corben to do something really spectacular with it.
Corben and Poe go back a long ways. The first time I heard of Richard Corben was his adaptation of "Fall of the House of Usher" back in the '80s, and that was not coincidently the first comic book to every really scare me. Corben is a man who deeply loves Poe — and more importantly understands him. He gets inside Poe's stories and poems in a way few other comic artists do, and manages the rare feat of producing works that enhance Poe's delicious text, even while not staying faithful to it.
This comic is credited as "Adapted by Richard Corben" but I'm not buying that. This isn't really an adaptation. Rather, this is a wholly original work by Corben, inspired by Poe's poem and using visual elements pulled from Poe's words. Whereas Poe gives us puppets as a metaphor, Corben gives us an actual puppet show. And his conqueror worm is no mere symbol. These blood-sucking, flesh eating beasties aren't content for "the tragedy man" to lie down in his grave to be eaten.
Corben sets his story in the hard lands of the American west. A man finds out his wife has been planning on leaving him, but two bullets from a pistol takes care of that plan. Riding home, he finds another dead man, his body riddled with oversized worms. He is bitten by one of the worms, and there his troubles begin.
The most terrifying aspect of Corben's The Conqueror Worm is his use of imagery. He plunders Poe's prose for specific words, and so "condor wings" becomes grotesque turkey vultures and Native American's with red-painted faces spreading huge black cloaks in imitation. His puppets for the puppet play are simplified — nothing more than sock puppets — which somehow makes them more unsettling. He juxtaposed the real and surreal, like when one of his sock puppet creations produces a very real gun.
Because Richard Corben is awesome, and does everything exactly right, he includes the full text of Poe's The Conqueror Worm at the end of this comic, along with an amazing sketch gallery that shows the master at work. The sketch gallery is truly eye-opening — we got something like this in Ragemoor, but it never ceases to amaze me to see just what an incredible draftsman Corben is. He doesn't start drawing in his famous style. Instead, he produces these photo-realistic figures that he slowly devolves and exaggerates, step by step, until we are left with the grotesque monstrosities that Corben is so renowned for. I have been following Corben for decades, and it isn't until these Dark Horse comics that I realized what a deliberate process he goes through to create his world.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.